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Two female playwrights debut plays written in response to the 2016 election
The new administration may want to nix the NEA, but it's certainly providing plenty of fodder (if not funding) for artists, especially playwrights. Since President Trump moved into the White House, NYC stages have hosted numerous festivals of new work with names like This Is Not Normal and Sanctuary, and Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Schenkkan's politically charged two-hander Building the Wall recently ran Off-Broadway. While Great Again, a pair of world premiere one acts written as a response to the 2016 presidential election, might seem to be part of that trend, there's an intriguing detail that sets the production apart. Both plays were actually commissioned by Project Y Theatre Company months before Election Day. They're now enjoying their world premieres as part of the troupe's second annual Women in Theatre Festival, running at the A.R.T./New York Theatres through June 24.
"Chiori and I talked a lot over the phone those first few weeks," recalls Crystal Skillman, who penned The Test about a public school teacher who discovers a swastika carved into a desk in her classroom. "We talked about our anxieties and hopes for the election, and what it means to be a woman in today's world," adds Chiori Miyagawa, whose In the Line is a series of frequently absurd vignettes about a woman waiting in various lines. Even though Skillman and Miyagawa were, like so many, fairly confident that the U.S. would end up welcoming its first female president, they wanted to wait until after it was decided to start writing. Then the outcome wasn't what they expected.
"I was so confident to the point that I think I sounded arrogant, you know?" says Miyagawa. "It was our time coming. Then everything I had thought was proven wrong. I was devastated, and it was really difficult for me to even think about writing a play."
Conversely, Skillman coped with her disappointment by throwing herself into the project. "The swastikas appeared pretty quickly, including one in a park where I work out," she says, referring to the rash of hateful graffiti that plagued her home borough of Brooklyn last November. "The day after the election, I went to a school deep in the Bronx to teach. It was interesting how teaching put my play's crisis in mind for me. It was a compelling situation."
As Skillman plugged away, Miyagawa missed deadlines. "Even though it was a national loss, I kept thinking about it as personal," she says. "Being American wasn't a birthright to me. I chose it. I was born in Japan and I had to give up my citizenship, but I just felt nationless after the election. I began writing haiku as a way to let out bursts of anger. I sent one to the founder of the festival and said, 'This is what I think I am going to write about.'"
Although The Test alludes to a few hot-button topics like teaching to standardized exams and the appointment of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education, and the protagonist of In the Line encounters characters who mansplain and whitesplain, neither work addresses the election directly. That's by design. "We've talked about having a life for these plays beyond the festival," Skillman says. "It's challenging to write something timely but timeless. We acknowledge how the temperature has shifted rather than making lots of literal references to Trump. That gives you the sense that you could do these plays after -- hopefully when he's no longer president."
At the start of In the Line, the protagonist is waiting in line to vote, but a man bumps into her and she drops her "wish-fulfilling jewel." She spends the rest of the play trying to find it. "I based that idea on something from Tibetan Buddhism," Miyagawa says. The missing object, which is never clearly defined, can represent many things: "our hope for the future of this country, our trust in humanity, sanity, all of those things I am questioning," she says.
Neither play features a specific call to action, however, both playwrights hope their shows will inspire resistance of some sort. "Activism is now a part of our daily lives," Skillman says. "My hope with the theatre community is to allow lesser-known voices to emerge in this conversation, not just those who have already gained fame. Many writers are going to make this a part of their work."
"My play is about resistance," adds Miyagawa. "I filled the stage with mostly women, mostly people of color to counter the threat that I'm feeling. My play is a small gesture that says, 'We're not going back to the end of the line just because we didn't achieve the first female president this time.'"
Top image: Cast of In the Line. Show photos by Jimmy Ryan.